Thursday, January 9, 2014

Uncharted



The hardwood stronghold on the snow-covered sea


With a frosty mustache and one foot soggy wet I kept marching. My insulated rubber boots were just a hair too short for the snow, so I was ill prepared for one particularly deep drift. It didn’t matter though, that my foot was wet, I was almost there. Promises of shelter and warmth whispered softly from somewhere in my head.

The wind-whipped snow flurries were dancing violent swirls through the trees before crashing onto the ground. Gusts coming off the lake burned my cheeks and split my lips. The small section of my face that was exposed to the elements was tortured ceaselessly. The rest of my head was bound in beaver fur, and my coat, flannels, and long underwear kept safe the remainder of my mortal form. If only I had worn snow pants over my boots...

Strapped to my back was a rickety old pack basket, stuffed to the brim with winter clothing, frozen fish, and an assortment of things I would need to spend the night at a snow laden cabin in the woods. I’m sure there are better suited and more modern solutions for back baggage, but the basket was my father’s and it’s rather romantic in an old-timey way.

There were no chickadees in my ear that day. There was no sign of the sun, but grey and white illuminated by a vast, cloud abyss overhead. Truly, daylight in the dead of a Northwoods winter only achieves a sliver of what is seen the rest of the year, especially in June. It’s almost like living under ground (a hard, frozen, unforgiving mound of black dirt), surviving these winters. But that was the point of my venture; I wasn’t going to let the cold and dark keep me down - I had to get out.

My walking stick was icing over at the bottom and my legs were burning. I should have worn snowshoes. I should have been more prepared ahead of time. I should have known better than to bring this much stuff.

I could see the cabin now, at least...

The dark brown walls were just visible between the massive snowbank rising from the ground and the foot or so of crusted snow sagging over the eaves. In that gap I spied the occasional window, ringed with frost and icicles from the last occasion someone had spent time in the hovel, its wood heat generating condensation enough to gather and drip and then refreeze.

Upon the hill I paused and stared at my goal: the cabin and the lake beyond it. I came here to get away, and away I felt very much already. I was far removed from the comforts of home, with all its distractions and chores and day-to-day ventures. I knew that being here would de-frazel my brain wiring: often thinking of work when I didn’t need to, stirring feelings of guilt for forgetting to return a phone call, of the Internet, and stores, and cable services. All of that was gone, and I let that thought wash over me and take me out to sea - a snow-covered sea.

The wind gusted and my nose nearly busted off. I could feel every frozen hair in both nostrils. I guess it’s good I still have the sensation of touch, burning cold or not.

Pressing on down the hill, I briefly entertained the thought that I should have brought a sled. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation - tramping miles alone through a snowstorm in the woods - prompted me to eventually make light of reality. After caution and focus had abandoned me at the sight of shelter, I felt only a childlike sense of joy. It’s that little voice in your head when things start to become unhinged where you think, “Hey, I’m here and things are gettin’ out of hand so lets just get a little nuts...” and then you start to go loopy.

Finally at the cabin door, I fumbled in my great leather and woolen mittens for the brass key hidden under the eaves. I had to shovel out room enough to get through the door, which tested my fatigued legs, but eventually I broke into the hardwood stronghold.

A flurry of the dancing snowflakes followed me inside and I could see my breath on the air. Funny how you notice things when they're misplaced like that.

I shimmied out of my pack basket and my back thanked me. Setting it down next to the kitchen table, I eyed-up the place. It was dark, too dark. I began opening the shades, starting with the kitchen and dining area. From there the cabin opened up into a main room with a large, potbellied wood stove on the north wall. Off to the west was a porch-like area with a bedroom, and on the south was another bedroom with a bunk bed. Upon the walls there were collections of decorative ornaments. A large, painted saw blade, a few carvings of elk and fir trees, a patchwork quilt with shapes of flowers, pies, and stockings, and a mounted elk head with a gargantuan set of antlers that touched the ceiling.

I stood still and felt my heart beating. Good God, this is perfect. My breathing was still strained from the hike, but the stillness and silence quelled it promptly. Tonight I will live moments in solitude. I will truly live them and enfold them into my worldly self and they will become me.

Centered, I prepared to take on the fire challenge. The inside air was freezing but at least it wasn’t moving around like outside. Next to the potbelly stove was a neat stack of kindling and larger cuts of pine and maple. Kneeling, I took up the smallest kindling and some old newspaper prints. I balled up the brittle paper and set each fire-starting paper egg into the stove, criss-crossed by small shards of kindling on top. One match-strike later and I had a small fire. Atop that fire I set larger pieces of kindling until I felt safe opening the draft to increase the oxygen flow. Shortly, the flames were roaring and the fire was ready for full-sized wood.

I could feel the wood heat gaining strength against the cold cabin air. Firelight danced upon the walls and soon my face even began to thaw. This will do!

Before unpacking the pack basket, I brought in more wood from the woodshed sitting just north of the cabin. A few armloads later and I had the door shut tight against the cold and snow outside. The chill was slowly being seeped out of my bones, so I stripped off my outer layers to enjoy the wood heat.

I set some water on to boil and sat next to the stove for awhile to thaw and dry my one wet foot. The crackling in the stove was the only sound in the world, save for occasional bawdy gusts of wind from the lakeside.

Sunlight through the windows was beginning to fade. I thought to myself, I best put the frozen fish in water to thaw for dinner and put a pot on the stove to boil potatoes, but that could wait. I wasn’t in a rush at the cabin. It was time to slow down and I would get to it when I got to it. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts for awhile - just me and myself.

From a dresser drawer in the living room area I pulled out an old journal and lit the gas lamp on the wall above the writing desk. My back to the stove, I sat down with my favorite pen, prepared to write an account of my trek through the snow that day. Before doing so, I paged through some of the old entries, from the latest towards the first in the front of the journal. The first few pages were reserved for an index of the entries, since the very first trip I had taken out to that place of inspiration and solitude. Eighty-two entries there were, all meticulously indexed in columns. I had never missed a single one.Just then a thought crossed my mind. Is it not about the journey, these adventurous escapes? What journey, what adventure would be complete without some mystery stirred in - some chapter omitted or left unwritten? Perhaps this visit is that chapter left off the books - the one only my memory retains and no written account will ever define. Perhaps this is the one that all the others were leading up to. Perhaps this is the key to some future riddle, the cliff hanger, the abrupt ending. Or maybe this is just one more lesson to learn in the grander scheme of things - that not everything has to be recorded or parsed out in lengthy detail. Maybe some of our times should be just those - times in the present.

At that I closed the journal. It was time for a change. This trip would remain uncharted.

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.


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